NOVEL: The Monogram Murders
AUTHOR: Sophie Hannah
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014
Agatha Christie’s estate claims that, with the exception of the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, she’s the most widely published author of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records credits her as the best-selling novelist ever, with roughly 2 billion copies sold. She was extremely prolific, writing 66 detective novels (along with numerous short story collections), but mystery readers are ravenous readers, and after her beloved detective, Hercule Poirot, died in Curtain (written decades before, but published in 1975), fans were bereft. (Hercule Poirot, to date, is the only fictional character to have ever been given an obituary in the New York Times.)
So, naturally, when the Christie estate gave Sophie Hannah authorization to create a new Poirot mystery, there was great excitement: The Monogram Murders, published in 2014 and set in 1920s London, features many of the Christie trademarks, including a complex plot, bizarre clues (in this case, murder victims found with monogrammed cufflinks in their mouths), a cast of disparate characters with much to hide, the detective’s dramatic gathering of the remaining suspects for the big reveal of the guilty, Poirot’s matchmaking as a sideline, and a slightly dimwitted sidekick (although the amiable and loyal Colonel Hastings makes no appearance here, having been replaced by the much less appealing Catchpool). Sadly, though, it’s just not the same. And it’s just not very good. Poirot here just doesn’t have the same spark, the witty dialogue, the charm of the original. It reads, unfortunately, like glorified fan fiction.
So why not return to the original novels? I grew up with them (the paperbacks were, in my experience, ubiquitous at library book sales, used book stores, guest rooms at beach houses, etc.), and honestly, have always preferred Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot. I’m in the minority, though: Poirot is undeniably more famous, and there are many more novels featuring Poirot than Miss Marple.
Christie’s never been a critic’s darling; the stories are unrealistic and stylized in the extreme. The characters are fairly flat (with a few exceptions). The stereotypes are, in the main, rather alarming for a 21st century reader. Yet, they’re still worth picking up, at least in my opinion: the plotting is masterful, the storylines clever, her recurring characters endearing, and the books are eminently readable. Start reading one in the evening, and if you go to bed before finishing the thing, well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
For the Christie novice, here’s my (extremely subjective) selections of the best of Poirot:
Murder on the Orient Express (1934): his most famous case (don’t tell me you haven’t at least heard of it)
Death on the Nile (1937): dastardly doings in Egypt
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): for the love of God, don’t read anything about this one before you pick it up. If you follow that simple instruction, you will never guess who the murderer is.
Five Little Pigs (1942): Hercule Poirot solves a crime 16 years after the fact, merely by carefully listening to the testimony of the witnesses.
And then, if you’re really hooked on Poirot, you may as well see him out with Curtain.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best):
The Monogram Murders: the New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah: 1 ½ whistles
Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Five Little Pigs, Curtain by Agatha Christie: 3 ½ whistles
The rest of the Poirot oeuvre: 3 whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org